It was on this day -- Dec. 18 -- that Louis Moreau Gottschalk died far from home. Louis Gottschalk? He may be highest-achieving New Orleans musician you never heard of, that's all.
His father Edward was an assimilated London Jew who came to New Orleans looking for prosperity. He found a 15-year-old Creole belle named Aimee Brusle, a headstrong spender of money whose ancestors constructed the family myth on the plantations of Haiti. From his mother, Louis got a religion, a language and an impulse to music.
Somewhere along the way, the oldest of seven Gottschalk children also picks up a powerful sense of denial. For example, he never acknowledged his father's mistress and "second" family, even though they lived only a couple of blocks away and he certainly knew of their existence. And even though Edward Gottschalk twice went bankrupt, Louis wrote, "From my birth I had always lived in affluence."
Actually he once lived in a tiny cottage at the corner of Royal and Esplanade, later at a house owned by relatives at 518 Conti. There Grandma Brusle and a longtime slave named Sally filled the boy's head with love and melodies from Africa, south Louisiana and the Caribbean.
At 3, Louis picked out "Hail, Columbia!" on the piano with one finger. At 7, he got to play the organ at St. Louis Cathedral while his music teacher F.J. Letellier worked the pedals and stops.
A couple of years later -- in order to raise money for a Paris music education -- little Louie gave a "farewell" concert at the St. Louis Hotel. He played variations on operas by Donizetti and Meyerbeer, accepted a wreath from the French counsel which he promptly handed to his mother, saying "Mama, it's for you." The crowd erupted; it was the first example of a brilliant showmanship that would never desert him.
On May Day 1841, the 12-year-old Louis set sail for France. Though he would never again spend more than a few weeks at a time in his hometown, till the end of his days he identified himself as a New Orleanian and greeted traveling compatriots as long-lost soulmates.
In Paris, he added dandyism to his musical skills. He learned riding, fencing and Italian, to go with a natural love of literature especially. Hugo, Dumas and deLamartine. His debut concert was seen by Chopin, who shook his hand and may have told him, "I predict you will become the king of pianists."
At the age of 19, Gottschalk debuted his "Louisiana Quartet," based on melodies he'd heard in childhood. Victor Hugo pronounced him not only a great pianist, but an "eloquent orator who can enrapture and move audiences." Parisians gathered by the hundreds outside his home just to hear him practice and rushed to crown him with celebrity.
Did the celebrity turn his head? Slightly. He began dressing foppishly and hired a "tiger," or personal groom. Both helped mask early hair loss and habitual nail-biting. So did his heavy-lidded melancholy eyes, which reportedly drove the ladies daffy.
In 1853, he returned home, putting on 10 concerts at Odd Fellows' Hall and the Theatre d' Orleans. He premiered his "Bamboula" here and was rewarded by 370 bouquets flung on stage.
He then launched a performance tour under dubious management. In Saratoga, he wrote "The Banjo," a very popular composition which was decried by classicists. This pattern would be repeated throughout his career, as would the pattern of finishing up a town in debt.
Gottschalk's unending penury was not all his fault. His father died around this time and Louis assumed the expenses of his mother and six siblings, now living comfortably in Paris. Gottschalk's generosity was vast, best expressing itself in the numberless concerts he put on for charities and benefits.
To pay these bills, Gottschalk became a sort of itinerant performer, roaming the hemisphere and popularizing his compositional skills by such sentimental songs as "The Last Hope" and "Morte!"
He returned to New Orleans for the final time early in 1855. The highlight of the visit was his ascension in a hot-air balloon accompanied by a keyboard instrument called a harmonium. As the Gulf of Mexico came into view, he improvised ecstatically.
What followed was a five-year exile to Cuba and the Caribbean inexplicable except for the Ada Clare affair. Ada was a plantation belle turned bohemian/actress and their affair was brief -- but not brief enough. She gave birth to a son who always claimed Gottschalk was his father and showed his misery at Gottschalk's denial by driving nails into pianos. Ada Clare wrote all about it in the popular press.
The Civil War brought Gottschalk back to America. Abhorring dis-union and slavery, he remained a Unionist and gave a private recital for President Lincoln. Aided by the burgeoning American technologies of railroad and telegraph, he crisscrossed the country to wide acclaim (especially for patriotic airs like "The Union") while competing in the concert halls against the likes of Tom Thumb and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In one 120-day period, he gave 109 performances.
Then he took an ill-advised tour of California, whose low light was an ill-advised rendezvous with some college ladies. As a biographer noted, Gottschalk was terrified of strong-willed women like his mother and Ada Clare and "fled to the company of young girls, sweet and adoring innocents." This time the flight was discovered, and led to another flight, this time to South America.
For the next two years, he wandered Peru, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. He adapted local music like tangos and tarantellas into his works and was rewarded by popular and critical acclaim.
His last stop was Brazil, where the acclaim was highest. He performed privately for Emperor Don Pedro II and had pastries and beef dishes named for him. But at a farewell extravaganza featuring 650 musicians and 16 pianos, he collapsed on stage. After three weeks in the hospital, his appendix ruptured.
On Dec. 18, 1869, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, 40 years old and far from any loved ones, died in Tijuca, Brazil.